“Get up.” JT whistled, tugging at the pair of sorrels he was leading.
On the boardwalk, people kept pace with the eight men riding down the center of Wall Street. In the misting rain, their identities were concealed beneath their low-tugged hat brims and raised collars. Who they might be was gossip worthy enough, but the small herd of horses they led drew gawkers to conjecture what their intentions were here in Harrisonville.
A blonde man sporting a well-waxed, handlebar mustache and a bowler pushed through a bunched up crowd, striding into the street before the men could pass by, calling out. “Hey Lafayette.”
"Bonjour, Jimmy.” Lafayette acknowledged, reining Coffee in.
Walking up, Jimmy Gamble laid a hand on Coffee’s shoulder, “My goodness, Bucko, it be good to see ya. Did not realize...” He glanced to Thaddeus burrowed in his oil-skin duster, “...y’all be back. Nope, did not realize it at all.” Shaking his head, he took Lafayette’s hand, sandwiching it between his own large hands, “My deepest sympathies to ya,” he raised his voice, “to both y’all. Words been spread all over ’bouts Sienna.” Jimmy’s bright, blue eyes blinked rapidly, as he looked up into the drizzle, trying to better see Lafayette’s face.
In a taunt voice, Lafayette replied, ”Merci" and extricated his hand, while looking askance at the good-sized, growing crowd. Turning to his brother, the muscles along his back twitched because up-and-down the boardwalk, their family name was being murmured.
Jimmy shot a hard look back toward the boardwalk, “They sure ain’t being very neighborly.” Shuffling his feet, he rubbed a hand along Coffee’s neck, “As I said, my sympathies. Anything I can be doing for y’all, ya just be letting me know.”
“Rance, Micah, Frank and some other Cavaliers be over at the Dipper. I shall be for meeting y’all there.”
“Sounds like a damn fine plan.”
Stepping back, Jimmy watched the tired horses tromp by and around the corner.
Riding up next to, his brother, Thaddeus asked. “Why you think they is all fuckin’ whisperin’ and starin’ at us like they are? Not like we are some damn strangers to ’em.”
“They are uneasy.” Lafayette cricked his neck side-to-side, popping it. “Taddy, they figure if it could happen to us, it could happen to them.”
Thaddeus fiddled with Cain’s mane.
“Do not let ’em worry you none.” Lafayette said, sitting straighter in his saddle as they pulled up at the hitching rail before the jail.
Sheriff Hart strolled out, and in an overly-friendly tone, said, “Good Day, Gentlemen.” His right hand took up position on the butt of his holstered Colt. “What can I do for y’all?” His blue eyes crawled over the wet riders. They each looked familiar to him, except unshaved and road weary, he was having a difficult time matching them to the families they belonged too. But he felt certain they were all Cass boys. Then at the back of the group, he recognized Jackson Erickson and visibly relaxed, saying. “Why, hello, Jackson; ain’t been seein’ you at Doctor Mathews’ side of late.”
“Been busy,” Jackson replied, remaining where he was.
Lafayette wiped the rain from his face, flicking his long hair back.
The movement caught Sheriff Hart’s eye and he did a double-take, “Lafayette Crowe!? Ain’t you supposed to be in Louisiana?”
Lafayette’s reply was a tight smile.
Sheriff Hart took a sharper look at the others, and knowing what part of the county Jackson and Lafayette were from, he placed the rest of them, including the youngest Crowe boy. Swiveling his eyes back to the elder brother, he asked. “When did y’all return?”
“Few weeks past,” Lafayette responded, motioning to the lead lined horses. “We rounded up these strays. Thought to leave ’em with you, supposed their owners might appreciate having ’em returned.”
Sheriff Hart’s eyes ran over the nine animals. They were good stock and right off, he identified a few of their brands. “Why my deputy and I would be pleased to return ’em,” he said taking the lead line Lafayette offered, and hollering, “James!”
A lanky, blond boy; more legs than anything else, came out from behind the Sheriff’s office and froze to stare at the men and horses.
“Take these animals ’round to the corral.” Sheriff Hart barked, passing the horse he was holding to his deputy. “Lafayette, Tad about...” He squinted at the Crowe brothers, “...well, I would like y’all to come on in and make an official statement?”
“What is to be said, we found ‘em. And, we are fuckin’ giving ’em to you to sort out to their proper owners.” Thaddeus answered.
“Well, I weren’t speakin’ of the horses.” Sheriff Hart said, “I were speakin’ of--”
"Excusez-moi, Sheriff,” Lafayette interrupted the stocky man, “It ain’t something either of us wishes to speak of.”
Hart stared into Lafayette’s eyes which were glinting with controlled anger, his gaze drifting to the complex furrows in Thaddeus’ brow, “I see.” He bowed his head, rubbing a hand along the smooth wood of the hitching rail and looked back at Lafayette, “That may be, but thing is, I need to know ... well, I need to know who all...” He swallowed; the hard stare Lafayette was boring into him distracted his thoughts.
"You, need to know what?” Lafayette challenged his voice so low it barely carried the short distance to the Sheriff.
“Is it only you and Tad, here in Cass?”
Lafayette snapped. “Why?!”
“As a lawman, it is good to know, ’specially these days, who all’s in your county to watch over and all.”
“I see.” Lafayette said, leaning forward on the shoulder of his saddle, bringing him closer to the Sheriff.” Then you can jot down in your ledger, the only Crowes in Cass is Taddy and I.”
“Uhm, boys, you have my sympathies. But, uhm...?” The Sheriff swallowed, his Adam’s apple distinctly bobbing.
“Oh, I see.” Lafayette replied, sarcasm filling his voice, “What you truly wish to know is, who all we placed in our graveyard. Am I correct?”
Sheriff Hart nodded.
Lafayette’s nostrils flared, knowing what he told Hart would be all over town before sunset, “All except, our Father, Gabriel, Webster, Peter, and Eudora are currently in Louisiana.”
“Eudora?! Oh, boys,” regretful compassion filled Sheriff Hart’s voice. “Knew you must have lost Antonio and Gabriel, since I ain’t heard from ‘em, but, Lordie boys, sweet lil’ Eudora, you have my genuine sympathies.”
"Merci," Lafayette said, shifting and sitting up straight, he asked. “Is there anything else?”
“Yes, when will y’all be headin’ South to join up with the rest of y’alls family?”
“We got non fuckin’ plans, too.” Thaddeus answered.
Hart’s blue eyes darted to Thaddeus, and what he saw in his face did not sit well with him. “Boys, I do not want to be hearin’ of you doin’ anything unlawful. Why do you not go on back to your family in Louisiana; I have already been investigatin’ into this.”
Lafayette scoffed, “What is there to investigate? It was Jayhawkin’ border scum who were assisted by damn Missouri yellow-belly rabble.”
“That may be, Lafayette.” Sheriff Hart said. “Even so, it is up to the law to deal with this matter.”
Backing his horse up, Lafayette’s voice remained low, “I deem the law ain’t up to it. So do not bother, we have already begun our own investigation.”
“Lafayette, I am askin’ you...”
Lafayette turned Coffee into the street; the others nudged their horses to follow.
“Boys, I am telling all y’all, do not be takin’ the law into yuse own hands.”
Lafayette looked back, ”Non disrespect, Sheriff Hart, but be honest with yourself... there ain’t been much judicial law out here for far too many years. So, you go on and tell me, what is there for any of us to take into our hands anyways?”
A few caustic chuckles rolled from the group as they moved off.
Sherriff Hart darted into the street, “Crowes, Masseys, Brody.” Not one of them bothered to look back, damn it, Nate... Jackson... Jackson Ericksen you listen to me!”
Jackson pulled up, peering at the Sheriff over his shoulder, his soft features set in an expression of apologetic ruefulness. Then he kicked Nero, passing by his pals until he rode alongside Lafayette.
There was a fair-sized crowd on the Little Dipper’s front porch as they rode up and Lafayette’s mouth was set in a grim line when he looked over to Jackson. Before they even touched ground, a handful of the men were moving their way; with Rance McGreen in the lead and Orville Riggs just off his elbow.
Rance hitched his thumbs in his suspenders and drawled out, “What are y’all doing here?”
Turning from his horse, Lafayette asked, ”Quelle?”
Rance shifted his eyes to Orville who shrugged.
Sighing Lafayette asked again, “What?”
Rance frowned at him, “Your Father said,” his gray eyes went to Thaddeus, “after them boats pulled out of Independence, that y’all both would be stayin’ on with the herd at your families plantation and that...” His eyes returned to Lafayette. “...you would see to it as you were already established down there.”
Lafayette’s head tilted to the side as Rance spoke, “Does it not seem ridiculous to believe, we deux would not return to be with our fami--” but his words dwindled off, his head dropping.
There was a general shuffle of movement from the men in the dirt before the Lil’ Dipper, as they all had heard Sienna was no more.
Fox Northrup moved forward, crossing his arms across his chest, he placed himself between the Crowe brothers and the other men. “Ain’t ya two got anything better to do than come pesterin’ us? Damnation, swear y’all ain’t got the sense God gave a gopher.”
Lafayette’s head came up, his eyes glistening, “Fox, it is all right.” He laid a hand on Fox’s stiff shoulder, “Taddy and I arrived the day of the fire. But we were too late to . . . . we were just too late.”
Orville looked askew at Rance and rubbed a hand across his mouth, “You two want a drink?”
“More than fuckin’ one,” Thaddeus shot back. Stepping up, he bumped against his brother. “Come on.”
On the porch, men parted, staring at the Crowe brothers, many of them shaking their heads.
Jackson moved in closer to his lifelong friend, whispering, “Anything I can do to make this easier for you?”
"Non, not unless you can turn back this past year so I never left.”
Jackson shook his head.
“They all is lookin’ at me like I am too low to stand on the same dirt with ’em. Like if I had not run off... I would have been there to defend Sienna.”
“That is more your own personal view, Bub, not theirs.” Jackson said, motioning to the men around them.
Lafayette leaned in closer, fixing to dress Jackson down, but his friend spoke first, “You are being eaten up from inside, Lafe. I can see it in your eyes. If you do not give yourself a little slack you are going to crack.”
“Is that your professional opinion, Doc?”
“Maybe? But more, it is me knowing you, and if you do crack and lose it...” Jackson looked toward Thaddeus who was surrounded by a circle of men. “What will become of him?”
Lafayette followed his gaze and felt a swelling protectiveness for his brother, of the likes; he could not recollect feeling before.
“None of us, who matter, ever considered you faint-of-heart.” He waved a hand to the full interior of the saloon, “There are more here on your side than you have taken stock of. Bub, I need you to take a breath. Do something, anything to settle this guilt you feel. Because, I am positive that you, Taddy, me, all of us we have only just stepped into this fire, before we are through it is going to get hot and heavy; and I for one would like you on top of your game.”
Lafayette looked into Jackson’s calm eyes, “I never planned for you to ride all the way with me. Pour l’amour de Dieu, Jackson, you are studyin’ to become a doctor; and with the war fixin’ to bust loose, doctors will be in damn high-demand.”
“Most likely so. But, your family always made me feel like I was one of you. Lafe, there is no place in this world I would be, other than by your side as you track down their killers.”
Lafayette nodded. He knew Jackson and knew his mind was set. “It might get worse than yesterday.”
“If it does, it does.”
Lafayette swallowed hard to hold back the emotion rising in his throat, “Well since, I did not get enough information as to where to turn, let’s hang around and hear what the Cavilers have to say.”
Reed Chaplin came rushing up, grabbing Lafayette in a hug that lifted his boots off the floor. “Sakes alive, I am relieved to see you and Tad.” Releasing him, he kept a hold of Lafayette’s shoulders, “My deepest condolences regarding your family. All you Crowes are good folk and those who have gone to be with our Lord will be sorely missed.”
Lafayette bowed his head, ”Merci beucoup.” he said, wondering how many more times he could show gratitude to people for their solaces. He had been saying ’merci’ so often of late, he felt anymore like he was thanking people for noticing those he loved were dead.”
“Let us get you a drink.” Reed draped a bulky arm about Lafayette, steering him toward the bar. Pointing toward JT, with his cousin Clyde near enough, to back JT up when his mouth got away from his low amount of common sense, Reed said. “Appears JT is telling ’em all the details of, shall we say how you recovered lost horses.”
Forcing a smile to his mouth, Lafayette asked tightly, “how would you know about that?”
Reed placed a hand on the bar, leaping over its wide surface, landing smoothly behind it. “I live behind a saloon. Damnation, I got me a fast track to knowin’ just about damn everything.”
Lafayette glanced to Jackson, who shrugged.
“Lafayette, what can I get you to drink?”
“Hmm, got any left?” Reed frowned, sorting through the bottles along the back wall of the bar. “Ah ha.” He pulled out a dusty bottle over half-empty. “No one asks for this but you. Should have recalled it was your drink.” Pouring a good dose out, Reed flicked an eye to Jackson, “The usual?”
Corking the whiskey bottle, Reed set the glass before Lafayette. Filling a cup with hot coffee, he passed it to Jackson and seeing Lafayette lay a coin on the bar, said. “Your money is no good today.”
“I ain’t a damn charity case.”
“Did I call you one?” Reed leaned on the bar, narrowing his gray-green eyes at Lafayette. “I said your money is no good today."
Lafayette arched an eyebrow.
“What good is being the son of a saloon owner if you cannot give a bit a cheer away here and again?”
“Not so sure your Father would agree with that philosophy.”
Reed looked around, hooked his thumbs in the pockets of his bright green vest, “Do you see ’em?” He raised his chin, his mouth curving into a large, flashy smile.
Lafayette shook his head, ”Merci, for your cheer.” Taking a gulp of the whiskey, he licked his lips as its warm, biting, comfort slid down his throat. Turning, he hitched his elbows on the bar. Throwing off his wet coat over a chair, he took another drink of the refined whiskey.
“Curious? Are you figuring on joining the Cavilers?” Reed pried, topping off Lafayette’s glass when he set it down.
Lafayette eyed the glass and then Reed, who only grinned, “Well, are you?”
“Oh.” Reed poured himself a drink, nodded toward Jackson’s half-empty cup but Jackson shook his head.
Studying the group circled up around the Massey cousins and Thaddeus, Lafayette heard Jackson strike a match. He held out an empty hand toward his friend, without looking, “Can I get one?”
“Do you never have smokes of your own?”
Lafayette turned an ashamed grin on his pal, “Enjoy ’em too much. They never last long.”
Jackson laughed, “Swear, I am going to charge a batch over at Kent’s to your account.”
“Go ahead. Can I have one or not?”
Laughing again, Jackson pulled another from his case and, handing it off, asked, “Need me to light it for you also?”
“Nah, I am damn good at that part.” Lafayette responded, digging out a match. He bent over the flame, puffing the small brown cigar to life. When he raised his head, there was a seasoned, leathery man standing before him.
“Sounds like y’all been busy.” the man stated.
Exhaling a cloud of smoke, Lafayette nodded.
“That one over there says y’all are on the search for fifteen or so men.”
Lafayette’s left eye squinched and instead of responding, he removed a loose piece of tobacco from his lip
“Let me see.” The man before him took off a well used hat to run a hand back through his shoulder length salt and pepper hair. “You’d be Lafayette Crowe, if my memory serves right. I am Cy Gordon; I got me a Partisan Ranger unit.” And, replacing the hat, he extended his hand.
Lafayette took another drag on the cigar, meeting Gordon’s eyes with an unblinking gaze.
“Most, people call me Silias or anymore it seems like Captain.”
Clamping the cigar between his teeth, Lafayette at last, extended his hand, “Nice to meet you, Silas.”
“So, is y’all searchin’ for men?”
“Got any leads?”
“If you feel up to sharin’, I mights be able to point you in the correct direction.”
Lafayette studied the man, using the same skills he had honed about a poker table, deciding Gordon was on the up-and-up, he said. “Lieutenant Matthew O’Rourke, Major Samuel Birmingham and those that followed ’em.”
“Birmingham is with the Home Guard.” Silias took a drink from the beer he was holding. “He is a big ol’ fish to hook and poke at.”
“I realize that,” Lafayette answered, taking a drag on the cigarillo, “Surmise, I need to do a bit more fact checking before goin’ fishing.”
“You done figured out how your gonna be a doin’ this fact checkin’?”
“Not as of yet.”
“Well then, we all is headin’ out for the border right here soon. It is being hit harder than a half-price whore. Hell, people are movin’ east out of Bates and Vernon counties so fast they look like a nest of migrating ants.”
“That so?” Lafayette asked, the muscles flexing along his jaw, causing his left dimple to furrow a line in his face.
“Mmm hmm,” Gordon grunted, taking another swig, “Y’all wants to assist us in defendin’ the border?”
Lafayette’s dark eyes strayed once more to his brother, who happened to be watching him, and Thaddeus nodded, “Why the hell not? Might be able to fill in some of the damn blanks while we are out there.”
“We are fixin’ to ride out in an hour.”
“We will be with you. Need to stop in at Kent’s Mercantile to stock up first.” Lafayette replied. “But, before we ride out, I want you to savvy, I am in charge of those who ride with me; ain’t having ’em used for fodder to protect anyone’s troops.”
Silias froze, it was not the strength of the boy’s handshake or even his words that had snagged his attention; but the conviction he read in Lafayette’s young face. He thought, ‘Consider myself one tough character, but given a year maybe less, this boy should be twice as formidable.’ Releasing Lafayette’s hand, Silias said, “Either way, glad to have y’all with us and I will remember what you have said.”
"Bon!” Lafayette’s eyes flicked to his brother, “Thinkin’ a bit of border defendin’ will do the pair of us good, merci beaucoup for the invite Silias.”
Swigging down the rest of his whiskey, Lafayette moved to the front of the Little Dipper. Here and there, men looked his way, but when he released a piercing one-note whistle, every man jack in the room turned to him. Leaning into the doorframe, Lafayette crossed one boot over the other, “Capt’ Gordon has invited me to ride with ’em. I figure I got a solid agenda of mine own and would like to build m’ own Ranger Unit. Our first outin’ will be joinin’ Gordon’s lil’ soiree de dance. Whoever feels I would make a decent leader and is willin’ to follow me, drag yourselves on outside.”
A little less than an hour later, Lafayette Crowe sat atop his big bay under the Dipper’s shade trees. Behind him splayed out; Thaddeus, Jackson Ericksen, J.T. and Clyde Massey, Fox Northrup, Brody Johnson, Jimmy Gamble, Orville Riggs, Reed Chaplin, Rance McGreen, Tom Hays, Zebidiah Cole, Gideon Barnett, Joe Workman, Lee Ball, Charlie Hamel, Jeremiah Burke, Nathaniel Davis, and Valentine McCane. The older men had been part of Gabriel’s unit and they joined Brody at Lafayette’s side with easy grace. Each man sat a horse whose saddle bags bulged and there was plenty of new hardware and rifles in evidence.
From beneath the brim of his new black western style hat, Lafayette’s black eyes scanned the men, his men, feeling proud so many had chosen him. Which meant not one of them considered him a coward. His eyes drifted to Valentine McCane, ‘unsure why he chose to join us, his and our family ain’t never been too close’ A frown formed around the corners of his mouth. ‘Hope Valentine does not turn out to be more damn trouble than he is worth.’
Spinning Coffee in a circle, he smiled over at his brother and hollered, “Rangers, let’s ride.”